In Britain when I was a lad in the 1940s and ’50s, horses were still a common sight in the streets. Although horse-drawn carriages had pretty well vanished except for those used for ceremonial purposes, delivery wagons ladened with milk, coal and beer were commonly pulled by horses.
In a huge city such as London, back when there was only live horse power on the streets, their dung must have been quite a problem. However, by the time I was a small boy growing up in Ipswich in eastern England, whenever a horse dropped a pile in the road, there would be a small stampede of suburban gardeners armed with shovels, trowels and buckets aiming to harvest the moist, steaming droppings. Marvelous for roses, so they said.
My mother thought it was undignified for her to go out dung collecting, so when we heard a horse clip-clopping our way she would send me instead. If I spotted its tail rising up, I was often first to grab the paydirt because I didn’t bother with a shovel or trowel — I’d just take any handy container, whether coal bucket, watering can or, on one occasion, my mother’s shopping bag (she wasn’t pleased) — dash out into the street and scoop up the rounded turds with my bare hands.
My mother had taken me to England when I was very young, but every holiday time I always returned to my birthplace in South Wales. From my grandfather’s house on the outskirts of Neath, whereI was born, it was only a short walk to hillside fields and pastures. On Welsh farms in those days, tractors had not completely replaced horses, and they were an everyday sight, either grazing peacefully, working at plowing, tilling, mowing, hauling carts or whatever.
My grandfather was friends with an old man who drove a two-wheeled, open-backed cart, rather like a chariot, taking it up the narrow winding lane, past the cemetery and the Ivy Tower to the small hill farms from which he would collect the milk in big metal churns and return the empties.
As a boy, I’d cadge a ride with him to go up to see my Auntie Peg, who lived in a cottage way up the mountain. Standing beside the old man, listening to the sound of the horse’s hooves, I’d imagine I was a Celtic warrior charging at ranks of Roman soldiers, or maybe a charioteer racing around the arena of the Coliseum in Rome.
In Britain then as now, generally speaking, the riding of saddled horses was more for the well-to-do. But unbeknown to my mother, we boys sometimes managed to capture ponies left out to graze in the hills, coax them with lumps of sugar and ride around bareback, clinging to their manes. I loved horses, and by the time I was 12 and helping out on a farm, I managed to get a few riding lessons. Oh, how I wished to be in a time, a culture, a place where horses were an integral part of life!
It wasn’t until I became the warden of the Simien Mountain National Park in Ethiopia in my 20s that horses, mules and donkeys really did become a part of my daily life. Park headquarters in the Simien mountains were six to eight hours’ ride from the nearest road, and all supplies were carried in by horses, mules, donkeys or men. The park owned 20 horses and mules, and hired a man to look after them. On patrol, my rangers and I usually went on foot, but our tents, camping gear and some food were packed on mules or donkeys that were both more sure-footed than horses in rough terrain.
Nowadays, in talking to country people of my own age in Japan, I find they all have memories of using horses or oxen as draft animals. When I first came to live here in Kurohime in the Nagano Prefecture hills in the early 1980s, I joined a riding club in order to polish up my equestrian skills because I was due to go to Inner Mongolia to make a television documentary.
More recently, I have become very interested in the use of draft horses for logging. As we acquire new land here for our ever-expanding Afan Woodland Trust I’ve found it has all been long-neglected, previously coppiced mixed woodland that had become scrubby brush, or plantations of spindly conifers such as Japanese cedar (cryptomeria) or larch long left untrimmed.
This kind of woodland needs to be thinned out to allow healthy trees to flourish, and it makes more sense to extract the felled timber than to leave it lying there to rot. Also, as the trees in woods I began buying and tending back in the 1980s have become more vigorous and sturdy, we need to extract some trees to let the others grow and allow more dappled sunlight to reach the forest floor.
Up until now, we have been doing this work by hand, or with a very small tracked machine. This is damned hard work but we don’t have enough money to afford big tractors and, besides, they do more damage to the forest floor than does the actual felling of trees.
In the past few years, the more I have read and heard about it, the more I have become convinced that using horses is the way to go. In Britain, the United States and Canada, horse-logging is returning to popularity, especially in smaller, privately owned or managed woodland. In Britain alone there are now around 70 professional or semiprofessional horse-loggers. By all accounts, using horses for logging reduces damage to the forest floor caused if tractors are used, and it is widely recommended for timber extraction on steep slopes, in conservation and environmentally sensitive areas.
Economically, the financial cost of horse-logging is only a little more than that of using and maintaining heavy machinery — but this is greatly offset not only by the beneficial effect of their manure, but by the lack of erosion and other damage. And, as one horse-logger put it, “You don’t wake up one morning and find a baby tractor in the barn.”
Last year a journalist friend, Shinya Hagio, told me of a horse-logger operating in the town of Touno in Iwate Prefecture, so in December I went there with Mr. Hagio and another friend, Yu Takami. There was a little snow on the ground when we went to the home and stables of 72-year-old Moriji Kikuchi. His horse, a 7-year-old stallion named Sakari Oh (King Summit), is a magnificent Percheron draft animal.
Mr. Kikuchi had to stand on a box to get the bridle on, but his horse was quiet and cooperative, and seemed eager to get out of the stable and go up the mountain.
Mr. Kikuchi had been trimming out cedar trees on a mountain slope 30 minutes’ walk from his house. He had already felled and trimmed the trees, ready for hauling.
The mountain slope would have been far too steep and dangerous to use a tractor, and the “modern” way to extract would have been to either bulldoze a zigzag access road, scarring the mountainside, or rig a system of high-level steel wires to bring the logs down using pulleys. The horse, on the other hand, had no trouble moving around on the slopes, and proved to be strong, sure-footed, intelligent and willing. A couple of felled trees had got caught up in other standing trees, always a bit dangerous and a nuisance, but even these the horse was able to haul out and lay down.
While we watched, Mr. Kikuchi and his fine horse dragged a bundle of seven cedar logs down to the mountain road, where they were stacked ready for cutting to suitable lengths for removal by truck. On a steep slope such as that, about 40 similar-size cedar, larch or cypress trees could easily be removed in a day.
I was watching carefully to see if there was any noticeable scarring of the ground. I saw none. I was greatly impressed by the quiet efficiency of the operation, and by the rapport between man and horse. You know, it was the sort of thing that even made us spectators feel good. Mr. Kikuchi gave clear commands, and there was no yelling or abuse of the horse in any way. It looked like hard work, but at the same time thoughtful toil and a lot of fun.
This visit confirmed my dream to bring horses into our Afan woods. If this dream comes true, we would use them for timber extraction only for a couple of weeks a year. At other times, they could be hauling suitably designed carts or sleds to carry children, especially disabled children, into parts of the forest and mountain they otherwise could not reach.
That’s my dream, and another thing for this old bear to study and work for. Ho, ho, ho and giddy up!